ambiguity & innovation


To preface, the general nature of my job requires me to always confront the unknown. These are not the small unknowns of most company’s product launches; things like “is this sign up flow actually easy to use?” No. What I’m talking about are the big unknown things; things like “when all vehicles are autonomous, how will society be changed?” This is the nature of R&D work, to answer the big questions. I find this kind of work fun and exciting, and most of all really, really challenging — to apply a designer’s mindset (note that I didn’t say ‘design thinking’ 😉) on challenges that people haven’t conceived of yet. But not everyone is up for this kind of thing, and it actually takes some getting used to, because it’s just so different than the types of things designers typically work on. So this month, I thought I would spend some time breaking it down.

People ’round here like to talk about innovation. I mean, it’s the Silicon Valley. Innovation was the bread and butter of the tech industry for decades. Personally, I think the acute focus of today’s startup world on sales figures and acqui-hires means that the Silicon Valley is no longer focused on innovation, but rather a hyper-optimization of tech products — and this has really muddied the definition of the original term. But let’s leave that topic for another time. What I really want to get into today, is ambiguity.

‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’, Salvador Dali; 1937

What is ambiguity?

Let’s start with a definition. Doing a quick Google search brings up this:

the quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.

To put it another way, things that are ambiguous have a certain aspect of uncertainty to them. Look at the Dali painting above. Upon first glance, it is difficult to interpret. But let your mind linger over it and the story behind the painting begins to reveal itself.

‘Echo and Narcissus’, John William Waterhouse; 1903

I bring it up because Dali could have painted a more literal scene like the Waterhouse painting above, but he did not. They are both representing the same essential story, but the ambiguous nature of the Dali painting invites the viewer to look deeper.

At work, when we start on a project, we actually look for the parts of the problem that are the least defined, the most difficult aspects to nail down. A typical product design process tries to reduce or eliminate uncertainty. Like the Waterhouse rendition of the Narcissus story, traditional design tries to be as literal as possible. Obviousness is a virtue. But for our projects, we try to find the opportunity in all that uncertainty. The fact that something might be ambiguous is exactly the reason for us to explore.

This may be all fine and good, but why is ambiguity important?

Innovation starts with ambiguity

The fact is, most things that are innovative are also, at least at first, mostly ambiguous. If someone follows existing conventional patterns, chances are quite low that they’ll hit on anything new.

I recently reviewed a project from a new student looking to break into the industry. There’s no doubt that mobile devices have really taken over. When you look at most designer portfolios these days, especially for recent grads, they all include some mobile app UI design. This project was no different. Additionally, when I reviewed the work, it had all the attributes of app design:

  • Splash page
  • 5-page “onboarding” slideshow (this is not true onboarding by the way)
  • Nav bar with 5 options
  • Search results feed
  • Detail pages
  • et cetera, et cetera

I think you get the picture. I mention this, because the app design followed all the conventions and patterns down to a “T”. It was an OK representation of all the things this person learned, but I couldn’t help react to the fact that it’s just a conventional UI for mobile apps.

As an aside, it bothers me that design “education” has been distilled down to the appropriate application of conventional UI patterns, but I digress.

Anyway, there was not much innovation happening in that project, no new thinking involved. It was just a direct application of rules and systems. I mean, sure, it’s an OK first project for them, but it wasn’t very innovative, partly because there was no mystery, no ambiguity to resolve.


An article from the Harvard Business Review describes the 4 different types of innovation that are possible. Mostly the article seems to praise the kinds of small innovations that are en vogue these days. Personally, I’m not sure I would classify things in this way (I mean it’s the stereotypical business school, 4-quadrant matrix stuff that grossly oversimplifies things), but it gives a decent rudimentary overview of the kinds of things I’m talking about.

To take this a step further, aside from classifying things, the way people understand innovative ideas is in how it resolves something that’s ambiguous.

So how do we create innovative solutions?

Well, I’m glad you asked! 🙂 I actually described my process not that long ago. It is based on this idea of the 3 Pillars of Good Design.

3 pillars

Of course it’s not the only method to use, but what I try to do is answer those 3 questions at different phases of a project — why? what? how? And I should add that it’s important to answer those questions in that order! In my previous essay I describe what happens if you jump right into the How.

Alternatively, you could just watch this video of Simon Sinek giving his TED Talk on starting with why…

The reason why I go after Why – What – How in that order is because I’ve found that these are steps in increasing levels of clarity. The Why usually corresponds to research. The What usually refers to your design concepts. The How is about the implementation (or prototypes). In my experience, pretty much every good design has to follow in that order. Failing to do so is at your own risk!

a “koan” for innovation

So in closing, I hope this gives a good overview of the relationship between ambiguity and innovation. In my job, we definitely look to the more ambiguous aspects of a problem to come up with ideas and concepts for the future. And let’s be clear that not every design team is interested in this type of thing. Some are much more traditional and will bias their solutions towards obviousness. There’s nothing wrong with that, but if you are interested in developing different kinds of solutions than the conventional kinds of stuff, you might find, as I have, that there’s more opportunity in ambiguity!

Here’s my blog post for October! This is part of my “Year of Blogging” series for 2017. If you have any thoughts, tell me about it on Twitter!

ambiguity & innovation

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